Scandinavia, still on my mind

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

My wife Neni cannot understand why she hasn’t gotten over her Scandinavia hangover, three months after. But this is not the usual touristy piece.

My daughters and I decided on a trip to Scandinavia (strictly speaking, not all of it, as we did not make it to Iceland, Faroe Islands and Greenland) because it seemed like a less-traveled route, especially during fall. 

We were intent on avoiding summer and the crowds and the high cost of travel during the tourist season. We were truly in search of places so different from our homeland. And indeed, Scandinavia offered all that.

The temperature was great, though we needed winter clothes, Aina’s Manila allergies all disappeared, and there were no crowds to be caught in. We were amazed that motorists would stop for pedestrians but due to our Metro Manila orientation, we still always looked left and right before crossing the street, just making sure. It was also a surprise to see how life in that part of the world seemed to stop at sunset, with shops closed, especially on Sundays. I was never fearful of pickpockets and felt safe with my backpack.

But an unpleasant experience to be remembered is that they are totally cashless (none of the US dollars no euros I brought were used). So that even an ice cream cone or an inexpensive candy had to be paid via a credit card.  Ay, there’s the rub. I don’t know to this day if Philippine credit cards were just being stigmatized (that same Third World feeling when applying for a Schengen visa with a Philippine passport – almost like justifying my very existence) but more often than not, one was asked for a PIN to go through the transaction. We were initially told in Copenhagen that it was an occasional security check. It did not bother us then, at our first stop, for we used other cards which went through the machine.

But it was no longer funny when in Stockholm, all of our credit cards were rejected because a PIN kept being asked. (In Manila, our bank manager said, tell them we don’t use a PIN in Manila – but I said, how to tell the credit card machine that?) It turns out that there was a European banking circular earlier in the year that PIN would now be required for credit card transactions.

That was too minor to spoil this holiday, our discovery of a new world. On the same week we were reeling from the PIN incident, our travel WiFi suddenly stopped working. Then came the announcement that effective that day, 3G communications were no longer possible, overtaken by faster technology.

How I enjoyed asking all of them what makes them the happiest in the world.  It is actually Finland that has topped the list for the sixth year. But Denmark and Sweden make it to the top ten and they must be tired of this repeated question from tourists like me. The usual answers are the quality of life – housing, education, medical expenses are provided by the government. Every citizen is entitled to that, because each of them pay high taxes whose returns they feel redound to their benefit.

Finns add a twist to the answers and say that perhaps it is their drinking water which they proudly say – with good reason – that it is the best in the world, a commodity they export. Yes, it does taste pure and different. 

They also say that of course, life is not perfect.  A longtime Filipino Swedish resident says that their biggest complaint is the absence of sunshine for most of the day during winter. It sounds like a novelty for us in the tropics, but she said that it affects one’s psyche.

Each country was memorable in their unique ways. In Denmark, where bicycles are king, with their own special lanes and even a bridge, hygge is what keeps them going – “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people.”

In Sweden, we relished their fika, it is socializing with coffee and any of their variety of pastries and breads – an absolute treat.

Finland is said to have a spa in every home, so we had to spa too. A gentleman well-versed in the ways of the spa taught us to soak in the heat for as long as we could endure, and then dip into the Baltic. I couldn’t do the dip but soaked my feet, finding it ridiculous to be in a bathing suit outdoors by the sea in Europe.

The fjords beckoned in Norway and although it was raining, Nature’s splendor was still there to appreciate. On the first day, we had a fjord tour in the city and I think I saw more of their post-card pretty summer homes (a must to own one for every household!) than the vaunted fjords. That’s why at tour’s end, I asked, so where were the fjords? When we complained to the Tourist Bureau, we were told that that is how Nature endowed the city with fjords. But out of town we went for the “authentic” fjords.

A well-remembered lesson learned – no bulky suitcases if one uses the trains. Efficient as they are, they are difficult to access with heavy suitcases, the variety we use for USA visits.

It was a trip to remember – from our regular hop-on, hop-off buses to many untold discoveries as we went on foot, not needing organized tours.

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